SPARTANBURG — On page s9
Eric Breitenstein likes to hand out Snickers bars to his offensive linemen after games. The Wofford senior fullback considers the candy a small token of his appreciation for what the guys blocking up front for him do each week.
And he passes out the candy no matter whether the Terriers win or lose and no matter how many yards he gains. Yet even he wishes that he could have done more for his linemen after rushing for a Southern Conference record 321 yards in a 49-24 win over Elon last week.
“If I were making a bunch of money, I’d buy them a steak dinner,” Breitenstein said. “But I don’t have the means to handle that. This is my way of saying ‘thank you’ because without them, I wouldn’t have anything.”
He didn’t even have king-size Snickers to give out after his king-size day because his dad always buys boxes of the regular-size bars at Costco.
But while the 5-foot-11, 230-pound Breitenstein has enjoyed giving treats to his teammates, he has made a career of playing tricks on opposing defenders with his rare combination of football smarts, physical presence, quick feet and phenomenal balance.
His 321-yard day began with a 90-yard touchdown run on the first of 27 carries, and he continued to pile up the yardage as the game progressed. He had come out of the game in the fourth quarter when assistant coaches in the press box sent word to coach Mike Ayers that Breitenstein needed five yards to break the single-game record of 313 held by former Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards.
Ayers walked over to Breitenstein and offered him the opportunity to go back on the field.
“He said, ‘That would be nice,’” Ayers said.
Bretitenstein quickly got the record on his second carry and came off the field with the football still in arms – “the only time I have seen him not give the ball to the officials,” Ayers noted.
The bearded Breitenstein, whose path is normally paved by center Jared Singleton, guards Tymeco Gregory and T.J. White, and tackles Calvin Cantrell and Jakes Miles, remains a little overwhelmed by his spectacular rushing game, the best in the 91 years of the Southern Conference.
“Everything came together. It’s amazing, it really is,” he said. “I can’t put my finger on it. And I can’t dwell on it, but it’s cool. I’m excited for all of us.”
The rest of the Terriers were just as thrilled. Senior defensive end Zach Bobb, Breitenstein’s roommate for the past two years, noted the great respect all of them hold for their teammate.
“We were all really excited. It was a lot of fun and great to see him accomplish that milestone,” Bobb said. “He’s not your stereotypical star athlete. He doesn’t pat himself on the back. He’s not a flashy-looking type of guy. When he got an opportunity to shine so bright like he did (against Elon), he looked the same as if he had been pounding out 3-yard runs all day.”
Despite running inside the tackles in Wofford’s triple-option attack, Breitenstein typically runs for more than three yards at a time. His career average of 6.4 yards per carry has helped the workhorse fullback get within shouting distance of the numerous school rushing and scoring records held by Shawn Graves, the incomparable quarterback from 1989-92.
With a school single-season record of 1,639 yards, along with 22 touchdowns, as a sophomore in 2010 and 1,474 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior last season, Breitenstein is doing something Ayers, who also coached Graves, didn’t think could be done, especially by a fullback.
“I thought it would be another quarterback (to challenge Graves’ all-time rushing record), but Eric has redefined the fullback position for us at Wofford,” Ayers said. “He has an amazing sense of knowing where the cut is.”
Breitenstein loves Wofford’s wingbone offense, which can feature a burly fullback as much as a wisp of a 155-pound quarterback like Graves, who finished his career with 5,128 yards and 72 touchdowns when the Terriers competed in the NCAA Division II ranks. He still holds the school single-game record with 323 rushing yards, accomplished in 1990 against Lenoir-Rhyne before Wofford moved into the Southern Conference and to the Division I FCS level.
“That’s the thing about the triple-option that makes it so dangerous,” Breitenstein said. “You pick your poison.”
If Breitenstein doesn’t get the ball up the middle, it could end up in the hands of quarterback Brian Kass or halfbacks Donovan Johnson and Brad Nocek. Kass, for instance, added 57 yards and three touchdowns against Elon last week, when the Terriers finished with 500 rushing yards.
Breitenstein, who wears No. 7, kept it going Saturday against Furman. He rushed for 158 yards on 21 carries in a 20-17 win as the Terriers, the No. 6 team in the FCS national poll, improved to 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the conference.
He is closing in on Graves with 4,588 yards and 55 touchdowns, but he doesn’t want to look too far ahead with the Terriers concentrating on a difficult conference schedule as well as a late game against South Carolina. He knows his chances to surpass Graves likely depend on Wofford reaching the FCS playoffs for additional games.
“It’s a long way off to get there, but God willing, if I stay healthy, we’ll see what happens and how it unfolds,” he said.
Breitenstein, a two-time All-SoCon and All-American selection, could be headed for his greatest season. With 735 yards and nine touchdowns in the first four games, he ranked among the FCS national leaders. He refuses to allow one defender to bring him down, and he always tries to keep pushing forward for more yardage.
Ayers, now in his 25th season at Wofford, knew Breitenstein would be a great fit for his offense. In an age of spread offenses, great high school fullbacks are hard to find.
“We saw all the things you see now. We saw a guy who understands football,” Ayers said. “He knew how to play the position. He just had to learn our terminology. And he felt better about our style of offense and what he could do (here). He saw an opportunity to be more of the player he is.”
The Wofford staff had to pry the Valle Crucis, N.C., native out of the home turf of a major SoCon rival, Appalachian State. Breitenstein’s grandfather served as the Mountaineers’ head coach in 1959, and his older brother Seth played on three FCS national championships at ASU (2005-07) as a defensive back.
But Wofford was the first to offer a scholarship, well before ASU did, and he never really considered a shot to walk on at North Carolina. Although he was intrigued by a visit to Navy, he liked what he saw in Spartanburg the best.
“If you’re a fullback in this offense, you’re going to touch the ball,” Breitenstein said. “It felt like home here and a good fit.”
Now in his fifth season — he redshirted in 2009 after a season-ending knee injury in the second game against Charleston Southern — Breitenstein has no complaints about his decision. Active in campus organizations, the environmental studies major has made an impact in the classroom as well. He would love to keep playing football if an NFL opportunity presents itself, but he sees himself working in land conservation down the road.
“When he leaves Wofford, in the big scheme of things, he wants to make a difference. You know the cliché — a coach’s dream? He is,” Ayers said. “He’s one of those guys with maturity, and he has great core values. He’s just Eric.”
He’s also a regular guy when just hanging out. In their campus apartment, Breitenstein and Bobb love to watch movies. They take great pride in being able to quote nearly every line from “Forrest Gump” to “The Shawshank Redemption” to “Tombstone.”
Breitenstein would love a movie-like happy ending to a career that has seen him compile five of the top 12 rushing games and two of the top four rushing seasons in school history. The Terriers also have made three trips to the FCS playoffs in his career, and he hopes to make it four.
As for finishing with the school’s all-time rushing record?
That would be sweet. Just like the Snickers bars he hands out.